Red Shelley by Paul Foot: radical before his time

Performance poet Benjamin Zephaniah tells the anecdote of how, as a punishment at school, he was given Shelley’s famous poem, “The Mask of Anarchy”, to analyse. When he informed the teacher of his inability to understand it, she cruelly branded him “stupid”. This should have put him Shelley for life, except that years later he came across a copy of Paul Foot’s biography “Red Shelley”, which made him a great admirer of the poet overnight.

This book makes it clear that the poem was inspired by the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in which hundreds were injured, a few even killed, as sabre-wielding mounted soldiers tried to break up a crowd of many thousands demonstrating to demand parliamentary reform, which did not commence until twenty years after Shelley’s death. As the member of a wealthy and privileged family, who had developed a keen sense of the injustice of inequality and the need to redistribute wealth from the “idle rich” to those who actually work to produce goods, Paul Foot probably felt an affinity with Shelley.

With no particular love for C19 Romantic poetry, I had failed to appreciate the serious ideas behind it in Shelley’s case, although I have to admit that his rational arguments impress me most in his written prose. Expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet on atheism, he wrote, “Supposing twelve men were to make an affidavit…. that they had seen in Africa a vast snake three miles long… that…eat nothing but Elephants, & that you knew from all the laws of nature, that enough Elephants cd. not exist to sustain the snake – wd. you believe them?”

Growing up against the background of the French Revolution, and coming from a wealthy Whig, anti-Tory, anti-government family probably exposed him to liberal ideas from an early age. His support for “the unfriended poor”, was based on his observation of the suffering caused by the enclosure of farmland and the squalid working conditions of the Industrial Revolution. His ideas went beyond a verbal attack on the arbitrary power of kings, and the cynical use of the Established Church as a tool of social control. He saw before many others that giving people the vote would not in itself solve the injustice of major inequality. This required “the levelling of inordinate wealth, and an agrarian distribution of the rich, uncultivated districts of the country”. Many of his ideas still seem surprisingly, and depressingly, relevant (and unachieved) today.

Shelley’s advocacy of free love also heaped opprobrium on his head. Paul Foot possibly lets him off too lightly, in underestimating the extent to which this argument was used by men as an excuse for “free sex” and treat women badly or disregard the pain that it can cause. Although Shelley genuinely seems to have supported “feminist” views, to believe in equality for women and to respect their intellects, as in the case of his second wife Mary Shelley, his abandonment of his first wife Harriet, who ultimately took her own life, is troubling.

Paul Foot admits to a certain inconsistency in Shelley. For all this radical poetry, “Let the axe/Strike at the root, the poison-tree will fall”, he was terrified by the physical violence of an angry mob. His attempts at being a political agitator in Ireland, or an agent raising money for the Tremadoc dam projects, which he imagined leading to a “perfect, idealistic society” for the workers, came to nothing. Since the latter provoked an unsuccessful assassination attempt on him (only his dressing gown was shot through with bullet holes), Shelley’s fear seems justified. At least Shelley’s “bitter satires” were read most widely amongst working class readers.

He ended up in Italy, furious over the 1819 ban on his political writing, although at least he escaped imprisonment for it, unlike some of those prepared to print his work. Isolated and often depressed, spending more time with Byron who had no interest in interfering with property and rank, than with any oppressed Italians, Shelley continued to write, producing his most famous “Ode to the West Wind” shortly before his accidental drowning.

There may be some small excuses for my previous neglect of Shelley. The late C19 saw what Paul Foot calls “an orgy of cultured Shelley-worship”, which stressed his “belief in freedom” and “lyric” poetry, censoring out all the controversial atheism, feminism and extreme views. In the 1930s, Shelley was savaged by the influential critic F.R. Leavis, for his “sloppy metaphors”, for plagiarising Shakespeare, and for his inability “to grasp something real” resulting in poetry which had “little to do with thinking”. But from what I have just seen of Shelley’s poetry, it is full of ideas and beliefs which make it worth reading, even if the language used tends to be excessive or lacking in discipline by some critical standards.

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